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Preface To The First Edition

In the present volume the materials and methods of the painter of pictures are viewed mainly from the chemical standpoint. An attempt has been made to treat in orderly sequence the various kinds of painting-grounds, the constituents of vehicles and varnishes, the pigments themselves, and the chief processes of painting. Although the artistic side of the numerous problems discussed has not been neglected, the book is in no way intended to teach manipulation to art students. It has been written with the view of explaining to artists, whether they be accomplished masters or commencing students, the chief chemical and physical characters of the materials with which they deal and of the operations they practise. In many instances a sketch of the processes for preparing certain pigments and varnishes is given, not in order to turn the painter into a colour-maker or a varnish-manufacturer, but rather that he may acquire a clearer insight into the nature and properties of the most important constituents entering into the composition of his pictures.

With regard, however, to the tests for purity and genuineness which I have described in the following pages, my object in introducing them has been different, for I trust that (in some cases, at least) the easy experiments I have recorded will be tried, especially with suspicious pigments. The operations require but little time; the pieces of apparatus needed, like the chemicals, are few and inexpensive. And when the ease with which these testings can be made has been proved by practice, the experimenter may perhaps be induced to proceed a little farther, preparing his own siccative oil, selecting and purifying his spirit of turpentine, and so forth. That the painter should test the varnishes he buys for hardness and toughness, and the pigments for durability, may, I hope, be taken for granted.

'Titian managed pretty well without chemistry, did he not?' A distinguished artist asked me this question the other day. But not only were the conditions under which the painters of Titian's time worked simpler than those of the nineteenth century, but grounds, paints, oils, and varnishes were generally prepared in the studios of the artists, and under their own superintendence, so that the chances of going wrong were comparatively limited. And it is not to be denied that a better acquaintance with the nature of the materials which many of the old masters employed would have caused their works to be handed down in sounder preservation to future generations.

It is possible - I hope, indeed, it is probable - that this book may be found of service to students who are purposing to devote themselves to certain manufacturing and technical pursuits. I am aware that to those who refer to its pages for the revelation of all the secrets of colour-manufacturers it may prove in some measure disappointing; yet I trust that, in the way of information and suggestion, the study of this volume will not be unattended with advantage. It must be remembered that it is confessedly an elementary manual only, written with a definite aim, but covering a very wide area of inquiry. And if chemists should conclude that it contains too little chemistry, artists may perhaps think that it contains too much. There are repetitions in the following pages, for the topics discussed in some of the chapters overlap one another. I am perfectly aware of having made the same statement, given the same figure, and expressed the same opinion in more than one place. The scheme of the work required such repetitions. I felt sure that many an artist or student would turn to one section or other of the book without caring to read the whole.

One inquirer would like to ascertain at once what pigments were safe, what dubious, what fugitive, by a reference to the tables in Chapters XXI. and XXII.; while another, anxious to learn something of the evidence on which the several verdicts of approval or condemnation were based, would expect to find his requirements met in the pages devoted to trials of pigments. Again, under the names of the individual pigments, discussed in Chapters XIII. to XIX., some of the changes described in the last part of the work are quoted. Thus it happens that there are some materials common to all of those sections of the book just named.

Much of the substance of the lectures which I have delivered before the Royal Academy since the year 1880 has been incorporated with the present manual, but it is necessary to state that some of the original material to be found in the following pages has been long before the artistic world, and has found its way into the books and essays of other writers. I say this, not for the purpose of making reclamations of priority, but in order to prevent myself from being charged with plagiarism. For instance, so long ago as 1859, I described, for the first time, some of the artistic uses of solid paraffin in a paper on the processes of painting, read before the Oxford Architectural Society; further details were given in a lecture to the Architectural Association in 1862. On many other matters connected with the chemistry of paints and painting, new investigations and studies were published by me between the years 1867 and 1872, particularly in notes and essays entitled 'Chemical Aids to Art,' and 'The Chemistry of the Fine Arts.' But my statements and results, whether contained in the above publications or in my Academy lectures, have not been, in all instances, referred to their source, or reproduced with accuracy, while some have been overlooked or forgotten.

In preparing the present volume I have made considerable use of several of the works named in my Bibliographical Notes; I have consulted also the standard chemical dictionaries of Watts and of Wurtz, the treatise by Roscoe and Schorlemmer, besides many special papers by other chemists. I wish I could have given an authority for every statement not derived from my personal experience, but in an elementary manual treating of many diverse topics such a plan, even if it could have been carried out, would have embarrassed my story with a multitude of perplexing references.

I do not know of any one text-book which covers the same ground as the volume now offered to the public. Several small books on pigments - the most important of all the materials employed by the artist - have indeed been lately published, but the chemical information they afford is generally meagre, and sometimes far from exact. One recent little brochure, which lies before me, has, I confess, caused me some amusement not wholly unshaded with regret. The writer does not pose as a humourist, yet he tells us, when we test for lead in cadmium red, first to mix the sample with white lead before applying the usual test for that metal. Chinese vermilion, he informs us, is sulphide of arsenic, though it is really sulphide of mercury. The presence of sulphides of baryta and lime is stated in one place to lend a softness to the chromates of lead; as these sulphides instantly blacken these brilliant chromates, perhaps they may be said to soften them. Coeruleum, a stannate of cobalt, is directed to be made of carbonate of soda, powdered flint, and oxide of copper, its two essential constituents, the oxides of tin and cobalt, not being named.

These and many other equally preposterous statements and directions may afford merriment to the chemist, but it is indeed pitiable that such teaching should be seriously offered to artists and art-students.

It is satisfactory to know that several accomplished chemists are now devoting themselves to the practical study and improvement of pigments. Mr. A. P. Laurie, Mr. H. Seward, and Mr. J. Scott Taylor, are all doing good work in this direction.

It remains for me to express the hope that the readers of this volume will favour me with any material at their disposal which may serve for the correction and improvement of its pages. I am aware of having omitted to notice many interesting matters; amongst these I include certain pigments, derived from coal-tar products, which have not yet been sufficiently tested. Then, too, the materials and methods of ceramic and glass painting have been excluded from consideration, mainly because their adequate treatment, while demanding much space, would have appealed to a comparatively limited group of students.

If painters and chemists will grant me their help, I trust that I may further justify, by means of an improved edition of my book, the favourable reception which I hope may be accorded to the first.

A. H. Church.

Kew, March, 1890.

Last Update: 2011-01-23